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No, Putin Is Not a Hipster: The Meme-ification of Tyrants

Occasionally you read something so eye-wateringly stupid that it makes you want to stand up and hurl your computer out the window, or alternatively sit down and write something angry about it. Thankfully for the sake of my computer, I’m doing the latter, but it was a close-run thing. The article in question this time around was this — a piece on Esquire‘s website by one Adam K. Raymond called “Vladimir Putin Is Becoming a Hipster.” The title should tell you all you need to know, but if not, the proof for this thesis comes from such factoids as: “he wears statement sunglasses,” “he’s as weird as Wes Anderson,” and “he can out-random anyone.”

Raymond isn’t isn’t the first to write a post like this, sadly, and he doubtless won’t be last — ever since Putin came to power, the American media has been fascinated with his fondness for wrestling bears and taking his shirt off, and if that’s all you know about him, it’d be easy to just dismiss him as a funny, wacky guy.

But here’s the thing: Vladimir Putin is not a funny, wacky guy. He’s someone who’s presided over a period of Russian history that’s encompassed, amongst other things, a policy of state-sanctioned homophobia and harassment of LGBT people, a dismal record on press freedom, and the alleged extrajudicial killing of dissidents on foreign soil. Giggling about whether he’s a hipster only draws attention away from the true nature of the man.

More generally, this article is an example of the curious 21st-century desire to trivialize and make fun of awful things in the world. This is not, I hasten to add, a question of satire; it’s a matter of approaching serious issues in a way that’s fundamentally juvenile. There’s a difference between satirizing people and making them funny — a key difference, and one that’s sadly lost on our Putin-lovin’ friend Adam K. Raymond.

The difference is that satire is a form of criticism, whereas puff pieces like “Putin Is Becoming a Hipster” carry no meaning beyond an observation that, hey, aren’t these authoritarian foreign leaders kinda hilarious? Satire serves to demolish carefully constructed images, while the latter serves to reinforce them. Authoritarian leaders hate satire, and yet often portray themselves as eccentrics. Take the studied eccentricity of Putin’s lovable bear-wrestling-and-judo persona… do you think it’s an accident? It’s a smokescreen, and asinine articles like Raymond’s only throw wet wood on the fire.

It’s not just foreign dictators that the Internet approaches like this, either. See, for instance, BuzzFeed’s inexplicable list of Ronald Reagan’s 31 Most YOLO Moments, featuring such memorable Reagan presidency moments as the time Ronnie dressed up as Santa and the time he shook the trunk of a baby elephant. Sadly, other fun things like the Iran-Contra affair, his love of make-the-rich-richer-and-everything-else’ll-sort-itself-out economics, and his instigation of the war on drugs — not to mention his status as the first man in world history with his finger on the nuclear button while possibly suffering from dementia — were notable only by their absence. (But then again, considering the same writer is also responsible for this and this, perhaps that’s no surprise.)

You can probably trace the contemporary desire to meme-ify thoroughly unpleasant leaders back to Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s depiction of Kim Jong-Il in Team America: World Police. But for all that it was somewhat heavy-handed, Team America did a pretty good job of depicting Kim as exactly what he was — a sad little bully desperate for attention. (See also: the absurdist manner in which Saddam Hussein was portrayed in the South Park movie.) A slew of similar depictions have followed Parker and Stone’s puppetry, but none have had the same bite — if you’re just giggling at Muammar Gaddafi’s clothes or depicting Kim Jong-Un as Cartman, you’re rather missing the point.

This trend of turning tyrants into memes ties into a wider, more pervasive trend Internet trend: the meme-ification of politics. It seems to be rooted in the idea that people (and especially those pesky millennials) will only understand or care about the important business of the world if it’s presented to them in the form of cat GIFs or silly pictures adorned with soundbites in all-caps Impact font.

The most egregious examples of this can be found at, yes, BuzzFeed — take its attempt to explain the Egyptian revolution in Jurassic Park GIFs, for instance (courtesy of guess who, by the way.) But you can’t blame a universal phenomenon on one site. You could almost hear the entire Internet rushing to make Mitt Romney “binders full of women” meme pictures as soon as he said those words during last fall’s presidential debate, or to plaster hilarious soundbites across pictures of Edward Snowden as soon as we got our first look at him.

Why have the Internet masses assumed this role? Part of it, no doubt, comes from the same desire that motivates the people who insist on posting “First” in comment sections — a sort of schoolyard oneupmanship, the desire to be the person who made the first condescending Willy Wonka pictures about whatever the issue of the day is. But it’s not only that. A good bit of it seems rooted in a fundamental alienation from politics, from the view that it’s become an absurd spectacle with no relevance to everyday life. This is only half true. Politics is indeed an ever more absurd spectacle. But it’s also something that defines the terms of your everyday life, because it shapes the nature of the society you live in.

This is a serious business, and the problem with trying to reduce it to simple, shareable, soundbite-size conceptual chunks is that those chunks do not and cannot acknowledge any real-world complexity. Trivial reductivism is great for making funny things to post on Facebook, but no use at all for describing actual, y’know, political systems, which are defined by innumerable shades of gray and very little black or white.

Again, you might say, it’s all in fun. But again, I say, not really. If we as a society approach politics in a juvenile manner, we can have no complaints when our politicians do the same thing. American politics is already mired in partisanship, the world is full of oppressive governments and state-sponsored atrocities, and reducing a new generation’s political discourse to a battle of point-scoring soundbites doesn’t exactly promise future salvation from the sort of legislative quagmire in which we’re stuck at the moment.

And beyond that, a disengagement with politics exemplifies the sort of ennui that only serves those who oppress. We have a duty to be informed about the people who are running our country, and a duty to know what’s going on beyond its borders. This is our world. And if the best we can do is discuss whether Vladimir Putin is a hipster or reminisce about how YOLO Ronald Reagan was or wasn’t… well, we’re all fucked, basically. YOLO, indeed.

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